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J. Bottum

The Subjunctive That Killed Hugh Finn

Our language about what a patient "would" want turns sympathy into empathy, pity into murder.

On March 9, 1995, a car driven by television broadcaster Hugh Finn was smashed in a head-on collision on an icy road, leaving him with serious neurological damage. Though some physical examinations—and the testimony of those who spent enough time with him to notice small changes—suggested that he alternated unconscious sleep cycles with regular conscious periods, he lay unmoving for the next three years.

Early last summer, accepting medical advice that Finn would never improve, his wife, Michele, ordered his life ended. And after months of fighting off legal challenges from her husband's family, she at last succeeded. On October 9, 1998, Hugh Finn died of starvation and dehydration in a nursing home in Manassas, Virginia, eight days after doctors removed the tubes providing him food and water.

The twists and turns of the Finn case were heavily reported in the local Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia press. And almost every newspaper and television account contained the same quotation, a line in which Hugh Finn's wife put forward her fundamental argument for stopping his care. Sometimes it was given as Michele Finn's indirect report of a conversation with her husband in 1993: "He said he would never want to live like that"; sometimes it was stripped down to her intuition of his nature: "He wouldn't want to live like that." But, particularly in the shorter form, it was exactly what was so strenuously denied by the family members whose dispute with Finn's wife made the case newsworthy, and to live in Washington was to read or hear the line nearly every day from June to October.

There's nothing new about such claims to know the desires of those who cannot speak for themselves. The anti-euthanasia lawyer and author Wesley J. Smith has argued that Finn's condition received notice only because it involved a fairly prominent figure with relatives able to publicize their objections. The Virginia court's ruling that allowed the removal of Hugh Finn's food and water ...

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